by Dr. Daniel J. Smith
In another devastating blow from 2020, we sadly suffered the loss of Professor Walter E. Williams, a distinguished scholar of economics at George Mason University. While his nationally syndicated Townhall columns and stints on the Rush Limbaugh Show made him a household name, I knew him personally as my graduate microeconomics professor.
As a young Ph.D. student in his classroom, I was blown away by how he reduced complex economic subject matter into easily understandable and entertaining lessons. While expecting clarity from students, he also demanded analytical rigor. More than once, he chided me for responses to classroom prompts he found deficient. His exam questions were so difficult, he openly posted them on his website, causing each new batch of graduate students to spend endless hours debating the questions with fellow students. Even to this day, I still get in debates with my former classmates about the correct answers to some of these questions.
Williams received his formal economic training at the University of California, Los Angeles school, famous at that time for being the developers of a unique brand of economics; UCLA price theory, which stresses the role of relative prices in driving the structure of incentives, the flow of information, and the feedback mechanisms of profit and loss. UCLA price theorists thus develop a deep understanding – and appreciation for – the role of prices, and the underlying foundation of private property, in a free market. While at UCLA, Williams learned from economic giants such as Armen Alchain, Axel Lejonhufvud, a young Thomas Sowell, and MTSU alum, and future Nobel laureate, James M. Buchanan.
While widely known for his public intellectualism, his scholarship was equally impressive. His primary academic contributions to economics were on the topic of labor discrimination. He found that labor regulation, such as the minimum wage and occupational licensing, often had the effect of excluding both African Americans and youth from the labor market, denying them the opportunity to acquire on-the-job experience and professional networks necessary for economic mobility and businesses ownership. In the extreme, such as in South Africa during apartheid, these discriminatory policies were adopted by privileged whites to exclude blacks from the labor force.
Underlying his research was an emphasis on separating the intentions of policies from the actual effects of policies. Well-intended policies often have unintended consequences. Sometimes these unintended consequences, in a tragic twist, actually harm the very people or causes the policies are intended to address. This was the case, for instance, when he examined the effects of minimum wage laws. Williams stressed that if we actually wanted to make the world a better place, we should really care about policy consequences, not intentions. “Compassionate policy,” he says, “requires dispassionate analysis.” Just like aerospace engineers can’t ignore the law of gravity in their designs, policymakers can’t ignore sound economics, such as the laws of supply and demand, in formulating public policy. The failure to do so can be devastating, as can be seen by the deaths of millions of Soviet Union and Chinese citizens under communism.
Williams also played an essential leadership role in developing George Mason University’s economics program. With his colleagues, he helped take George Mason University’s economics department from a community college program into one of the most prestigious and recognized economic departments in the world with two Nobel laureates to their name (one of them being James M. Buchanan). They did this by embracing a “moneyball” strategy, finding faculty punching above their weight in undervalued research programs, such as public choice, Austrian economics, and experimental economics.
The intellectual success experienced at George Mason is very much the model I have followed in developing the Political Economy Research Institute at Middle Tennessee State University. Thus, in a very real way, we are building on Walter William’s legacy right here in Tennessee. While we can never hope to replace Professor Williams, we can train future Ph.D. students in economics to appreciate and teach, with clarity and rigor, sound economics.
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Dr. Daniel J. Smith is the Director of the Political Economy Research Institute at MTSU and an Associate Professor of Economics in the Jones College of Business. He is also the Senior Fellow for Fiscal and Regulatory Policy at the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter: @smithdanj1
Photo “Walter E. Williams” by Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University. CC BY 3.0.